Thursday, June 07, 2007

DHS Drug Survey Followup: The Lost Notes Version

I had hoped they would jump out of my pants or coat, come together and reassemble in a neat pile next to my keys...but after a few days of waiting, I have given up the ghost to find my telephone notes on this story. I have information to impart, I can tell you what the principals said in general and in tone--but I don't have good documentation of the conversations. Sloppy, sloppy, but I must rise above the mistake and do the job as best I can from memory. It's all about the story, dammit! I...I owe you that much.

If you recall, as we were discussing the DHS press release on its substance abuse survey of Oregonians, we marveled at how deep the cuts have been in youth smoking, not to mention marijuana and alcohol use among teens and preteens. Yet these facts seemed sumberged in favor of negative headlines and oddly cherrypicked factotums--such as "more kids use pot than cigarettes," without explaining that both were way down but cigarettes were down more. So I tried to find out who had put the press release together, to ask why the good news was adroitly avoided.

I spoke with the AMH (the Department's Addiction and Mental Health division) representative on the survey project, Geralyn Brennan. The work was done in conjunction with a consultancy as contractor, presumably to administer the surveys among youth and then compile the result. I can't say exactly what they did, because they never returned my call. But Brennan's unit put the release together, so I asked her why it was slanted so negatively and the great news about declines over the last 10 years had not even been mentioned.

In retrospect, I may have let Ms. Brennan off the hook a bit by concentrating on the cigarette decline among 8th and 11th graders, which were massive--over 60% in 10 years for 8th grade prevalence. I say this because when I asked about the lack of tobacco stats, she explained that tobacco control is in a different area of DHS (and whose offices are in a different city), and Brennan did not "feel comfortable" extracting statistics on tobacco without "clearance." (I don't have notes, but where I use quotes in these cases, I remember those words or phrases being used.)

Well, there you go--you can smell the bureaucratic communications breakdown coming down Track Two, can't you? Brennan recalled that she thought she had asked someone to ask about what to include, but couldn't say who it was or if it was done, and what the folks in tobacco control might have said. Needless to say, somewhere along the line somebody dropped the ball. I followed up with Karen Girard, who runs not only tobacco control and prevention but also the state's asthma program. She was generally aware of the studies but agreed she might not have been the person contacted for permission, rather it would have been her analyst Stacey Schubert.

Poor Stacey Schubert is who had to answer for this, calling me back to assure me that no one had contacted her about any material in the studies related to tobacco and the big achievements they made, and that the press release was put together without their input (and thus without their data).

As with Brennan, I tried to prod Schubert a little bit about how they thought about the way the information was treated in the media. Wasn't it disappointing to have had such eye popping numbers and not even gotten a mention? Wasn't it odd to make it seem like pot use was on the rise when it was only so because cigarette use was so far down as well? And is tobacco going to tell the story in its own press release, to show that the money put into education absolutely works? Schubert was ruefully professional, discussing the restrictive politics that controlled what was "newsworthy" enough to merit a press release. I thought Jeeesus, what more do they want in order to merit one? A Million Child March on Washington to burn cigarettes in a bonfire and beat the living crap out of the Marlboro Man?

And thus we reach the bottom line--there was no context in the press release because the people who wrote the press release neglected to glean any context from it other than what played most spectacularly. I asked Brennan to characterize the panoply of results as it impacted children, and her response was that overall cigarette and marijuana use was down, alcohol use was flat, and other drugs showed a mixed profile. So I asked whether she thought the way the story was reported accurately reflected the results of the report. She did agree that the media tone was negative, but didn't really cop to creating that tone based on the press release (which remember, nearly every media outlet appeared to have used as the sole source for their reportage).

How can you not get the sense that it was written to maximize a sense of crisis, and thus reliance on the capable hands of DHS? The additional implications provided by Schubert suggest a highly political process where the simple results of whether teen substance use is going up or down is hardly the only consideration. And for Oregon to play scaremonger with it is odd. I mean, notwithstanding the feds we're one of those states who actually thinks it's OK for sick people to get high. So why make a headline that does the legwork for the war on drugs? And beyond the politics, it's crazy that one entire subfocus of the survey--cigarettes--was ignored, just because no one thought to follow up with the tobacco people on it.

Moral of the story, as usual: read the reports for yourself; don't trust what the media tell you about it in 250 words.